Menu
Home

Barack Obama's Pattern of False Statements on Bill Ayers

The media is ferociously attacking the McCain campaign’s new Web-based ad linking Barack Obama and Bill Ayers. The ad is very short:

Obama's blind ambition. When convenient, he worked with terrorist Bill Ayers. When discovered, he lied. Obama. Blind ambition. Bad judgment. Congressional liberals fought for risky subprime loans. Congressional liberals fought against more regulation. Then, the housing market collapsed costing you billions. In crisis, we need leadership, not bad judgment.

A second longer ad released on the Web at the same time continues this point and argues:

Barack Obama and Bill Ayers, friends. They have worked together for years, but Obama tries to hide it, why? . . . Obama's friendship with terrorist Ayers isn't the issue. The issue is Barack Obama's judgment and candor.

The press has focused exclusively on the first ad. Howard Kurtz at the Washington Post writes: “To say that Obama ‘lied’ about his contacts with Ayers, whose Weathermen group conducted bombings when the senator from Illinois was 8 years old, is simply untrue.” Relying heavily on a recent article in the New York Times, Viveca Novak and Brooks Jackson with FactCheck.org write: “We find McCain's claim to be groundless. New details have recently come to light, but nothing Obama said previously has been shown to be false.” The Washington Post Fact Checker came to a similar conclusion.

Not to be outdone, Obama called the ad “smears” and he questioned why McCain “wasn’t willing to say it to my face” during the two previous debates. Obama at least rhetorically ratcheted up the stakes over the relationship between himself and Ayers. However, since no debate questions asked anything related to Ayers or indeed any of Obama’s controversial past relationships, it is not obvious where McCain could have raised the issue.

1) The ABC News Democratic Primary Debate

So what were Obama’s statements on Ayers? Start with Obama’s first statements on Ayers during a Democratic primary debate hosted by ABC News in April. George Stephanopoulos asked Obama to “explain that relationship” with Ayers. Obama responded by saying:

This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who's a professor of English in Chicago, who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. He's not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis.

And the notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values, doesn't make much sense, George.

The fact is, is that I'm also friendly with Tom Coburn, one of the most conservative Republicans in the United States Senate, who during his campaign once said that it might be appropriate to apply the death penalty to those who carried out abortions.

Do I need to apologize for Mr. Coburn's statements? Because I certainly don't agree with those either.

Obama's claims that “I have not received some official endorsement from” and “not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis” are both wrong. True, Ayers has not publicly endorsed Obama during the current presidential campaign, but Ayers opened his home to Obama very early in his first campaign for the Illinois state Senate and threw a fundraiser for him. Undoubtedly, that counts as some type of official endorsement.

The issue of not exchanging ideas regularly is clearly wrong, too. Ayers and Obama served on two boards together: the Chicago Annenberg Challenge from 1995 to 2001 and the Woods Foundation from 1993 to 2002. For the first five years with the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, Obama served as chairman of the board and handled its fiscal matters. Ayers was the Chicago Annenberg Challenge’s founder and he served as the chairman of the foundation’s other body that set education policy. Since they served together with a foundation that gave out over $100 million to groups that they both generally agreed with, there had to be some regular exchange of and agreement on ideas.

Agreement on views seemed particularly crucial, since Ayers hardly has what most Americans would consider “traditional” views on education. The Chicago Annenberg Challenge gave money to infuse students with a radical political commitment. Just in 2006, Ayers told Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez that, “We share the belief that education is the motor-force of revolution.” Ayers apparently told an author, who was writing a book on 1960s radicals shortly before the foundation was set up in 1995, that “I’m a radical, Leftist, small ‘c’ communist.”

None of the media fact checkers evaluated either of these two claims. Instead, for example, the Washington Post Fact Check focused on whether Ayers was a professor of English or education citing the New York Times story's claim that the "two men do not appear to have been close." Nor do any of these media critics mention Obama’s comparison to Coburn, which makes it appear that the relationship between Ayers and Obama was about as close as senators from different political parties at the opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Yet, there is still another problem with Obama’s statement, one that Hillary Clinton pointed to. She called on Obama during the debate for not being completely forthcoming regarding the relationship and pointed out that Ayers and Obama had worked together.

Senator Obama served on a board with Mr. Ayers for a period of time, the Woods Foundation, which was a paid directorship position. And if I'm not mistaken, that relationship with Mr. Ayers on this board continued after 9/11 and after his reported comments, which were deeply hurtful to people in New York, and I would hope to every American, because they were published on 9/11 and he said that he was just sorry they hadn't done more. And what they did was set bombs and in some instances people died. . . .

Obama’s response was:

I'm going to have to respond to this just really quickly, but by Senator Clinton's own vetting standards, I don't think she would make it, since President Clinton pardoned or commuted the sentences of two members of the Weather Underground, which I think is a slightly more significant act than me [interruption] than me serving on a board with somebody for actions that he did 40 years ago.

FactCheck.org dismisses any concerns with Obama’s statements here by noting that “nothing Obama said then has since been shown to be false.” As far as Obama not mentioning the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, “neither Clinton nor Stephanopoulos asked him about that project” so “it is false to claim he ‘lied.’" Presumably, FactCheck.org believes that argument also applies to Obama not being forthcoming that they worked together in his original answer even though the question was to “explain that relationship.”

Despite FactCheck.org’s claims to the contrary, many academics would disagree that the Challenge reflected “mainstream thinking” about education. Professor Larry Kenny at the University of Florida notes that economists would take a quite different approach. Kenny said that, “economists studying education have stressed the important role of providing faculty and students with incentives to learn more.”

FactCheck.org relies on the New York Times count of the number of formal board meetings that Ayers and Obama attended for the Challenge, but ignores Stanley Kurtz’s research showing that the records were apparently far from complete. Nor the Challenge’s own memos showing that the Challenge was a “Founder-Led Foundation,” so that Obama was really an employee of Ayers and “effectively running the show.” There are no records of how frequently the two may have meet outside of Board meetings to discuss what the Foundation was doing.

Multiple calls to Michael Dobbs, Howard Kurtz and Viveca Novak for questions on their analyses were not returned. Brooks Jackson was reached by telephone, but he declined to comment when asked whether the help in fundraising and donations given by Ayers to Obama when he ran for the state Senate constituted some form of an endorsement.

2) Other quotes on Obama's relationship with Ayers

-- "Did Barack Obama know that William Ayers was a terrorist when Ayers introduced him to Chicago Politics in 1995?" former congressman and MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough asked him.

"The answer is still [that] he didn't," Gibbs replied. "And that's what [David Axelrod, another spokesman] said yesterday." Discussion on October 7th on MSNBC.

-- “Ultimately, I ended up learning about the fact that he had engaged in this reprehensible act 40 years ago, but I was 8 years old at the time and I assumed that he had been rehabilitated.” Obama talking to radio talk show host Michael Smerconish on October 8th.

Again, neither of these quotes were mentioned by the fact checkers at the Washington Post or FactCheck.org. That Obama didn’t know about Ayers’ criminal history was greeted with skepticism by many, who point out that Ayers' associations were frequently reported on, especially in Chicago where he and his wife Bernardine Dohrn had been active. During the 1990s, when Obama lived in Chicago, dozens of stories on Ayers and his wife ran in newspapers, including The New York Times, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, a database search reveals.

Ayers and his wife were often the sole focus of the stories. For example, the New York Times ran an in-depth profile of Bernardine Dohrn on Nov. 18, 1993.

Last week, Greta Van Susteren, a FOX News host, summarized the concerns in an interview with Abdon Pallasch, a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times.

Van Susteren: Well, I guess that raises the question if it's old news and everybody knew it, do we assume that Senator Obama knew it when he had--for instance, when he started having his relationship with him to the extent, whatever it was?

Pallasch: You would think. That's sort of the second phase question now is, well, how come he didn't know it.

Erick Erickson, a blogger at the popular redstate.com, says he thinks Obama should have known.

"And we're really supposed to believe Obama did not know, by 1996, given all the major media coverage of the 1996 Democratic Convention going back to Chicago despite the 1968 riots -- including local and national media interviews with Bill Ayers on the subject -- that Obama did not know? … If Obama really did not know, we must question his fitness to be President."

Finally, why would Obama ever think that William Ayers had been “rehabilitated”? Both Ayers and his wife have very publicly proclaimed many times on national television shows and other venues during the time Obama was working with Ayers that they were not sorry for the bombings “and that we would do it again” and “I didn’t do enough.”

3) A pattern of false statements about controversial acquaintances

Yet, this is not the first time that Obama has gotten into trouble with his associates. Nor is it the first time that he has been accused of not being honest about what he knew about their controversial views. There appears to be a pattern here.

For example, Obama claimed that despite his extremely close personal relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright he was unfamiliar with Wright’s racist and anti-American attacks in his sermons. Indeed, Obama only admitted to have heard what Wright was saying on these topics after Wright’s National Press Club appearance. Yet, nothing really new was said at the National Press Club that hadn’t been discussed nationally months earlier. Still it was only after the National Press Club appearance that Obama said that he was “outraged” and “angered” by Wright’s comments.

But Obama’s two other self-professed spiritual leaders, Father Michael Pfleger and Rev. James Meeks, have also made similar controversial and racist statements.

There is also Obama’s association with ACORN. Obama claims to have "no connection" with this political advocacy group which is facing criminal investigations for voter registration fraud all across the country, but at the same time his campaign gave a related organization $800,000, he was their head lawyer a decade ago, ACORN has endorsed Obama for president and he promised ACORN members in 2007 that he would be “calling all of you to help shape up the agenda” after the election.

Conclusion

Is this bias conscious? How do reporters avoid claims about whether Ayers has endorsed Obama? Or how was Obama being honest when asked to explain his relationship with Ayers and he neglected to mention that he worked for Ayers? Possibly there is a good reason for why the media ignores Obama’s statements from just last week. But whatever the reasons, John McCain is being shortchanged by the coverage.


John Lott is the author of Freedomnomics and a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland.

Please join the discussion on this piece here.